Prison of the Mind: Liao Yiwu’s Memoir of Incarceration

At The New Yorker, Ian Buruma reviews Liao Yiwu’s prison memoir For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison. The book was rewritten twice after its first and second drafts were confiscated by police, and its English translation was finally published this summer.

Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831 to study the country’s prison system, and ended up writing “Democracy in America.” Observing the Chinese prison system from the inside, from 1990 to 1994, as a “counterrevolutionary” inmate, Liao Yiwu tells us a great deal about Chinese society, both traditional and Communist, including the impact of revolutionary rhetoric, forced denunciations and public confessions, and, as times have changed since Mao’s misrule, criminal forms of capitalism. He ends his account by saying that “China remains a prison of the mind: prosperity without liberty.”

[…] One of the less creditable reasons we read prison memoirs such as this one with horrified fascination is that the torments of others can have a lurid pornographic appeal. But what makes Liao’s work so riveting is his gift for observation. Despite his own suffering, he is endlessly curious about others, their characters, their stories, and how they cope with the terrors of prison life. His encounters with other prisoners are skillfully transformed into short stories. Since some of these men are facing execution, the stories are often about dealing with imminent death. A heroin smuggler nicknamed Dead Chang wants to borrow Liao’s atlas in preparation for his next life as a wandering ghost. Dead Chang got lost too many times in his present life, and wishes to visit his favorite haunts after he is dispatched with a bullet to the neck. Being told by this condemned man that they might meet again in the next world, Liao finds that his “limbs were quivering.” Dead Chang asks him whether he is O.K., and “let out a sinister laugh. The deep crease between his eyebrows seemed to have opened up like a mouth, ready to swallow me.” [Source]

In the magazine’s Out Loud podcast, Buruma also talks to The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch and Sasha Weiss. Buruma and Gourevitch read from one of the conversations in Liao’s earlier book, The Corpse Walker, on how “public bathrooms have become a venue for free speech”, and discuss “why Liao doesn’t consider himself a political dissident, why his writing is threatening to the Chinese government, and the challenges of living in exile.” (Liao left China two years ago, and is now based in Berlin.) Their conversation on the latter topic is also relevant to legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s situation in New York.